Archive | January 2013

Cluessless Is Not Leadership, Nor Sensible!

While not wanting to misuse my soapbox on politics, politics sometimes offers and confirms valuable lessons, like the Petraeus case.  This week I thank Congress, for tying their salary to offering a 2013 budget plan!  The lesson?  The same as it was in the Petraeus case, it’s the quintessential clueless nature and the lack of humility associated with the top group of managers, decision-makers, or those who believe that they are leaders but whose followers are only from a narrow section of the community they profess to lead.  I hope readers who have waded through my lengthy discussion of intergroup dynamics of topmiddlebottom resonated with much of what I wrote.  All groups want to maintain and grow their power – in order to execute their ideas and plans.  But often, the groups with the most power, vis a via other groups, tend to allow “gaining more power” to become the end rather than the means.

How a person behaves, or how a group acts, can best be understood in the context of relationships.  Plainly, we experience and view the same person differently; there are always different nuanced perceptions, depending on the relationships.  This holds true for group and intergroup dynamics.  Further, the impact of group forces on individual members is quite often beyond our awareness and control.  So, while groups may respond and react differently depending on the other groups with which to interact, there are patterns of attitudes and behaviors that can serve as signposts.

One of the “typical” responses with which the top group reacts to criticism or protest is the essentially-empty gesture.  They may mean well; they often think that they are sincere in their attempts.  But, inevitably they come off as “clueless” in the eyes of the other groups of lower ranks in the power structure.  When the top group of people try very hard to ameliorate some problems within the organization, they always offer something that others could not care much about, such as a meaningless apology, forced resignation of someone (often seen as scapegoating) or giving back a token bonus, etc.


Camouflage (Photo credit: Nick Chill Photography)

Congress just offered withholding that which is a meaningless bonus — their salary — until there is a budget plan.  Why do I call this a meaningless bonus?  Their salary is already in the very top of the income distribution for American population; just about ALL of them are multimillionaires; their salary is a relative pittance that probably doesn’t even match the interest derived from their assets.  So, the collective of Congressional representatives do not truly understand how most Americans live and what they care about.  I have to ask:  Why don’t we have representatives that actually represent the population?  Politics aside, my point here is:  The Congressional representatives’ behavior is more about their internal fight for power posturing than what is really important for the big organization, our country.  This pattern is often repeated in the top management group’s behavior; they are more concerned about their power base, their directory, than the whole of the organization.

I might have mentioned this example before, but it’s worth repeating.  Years ago, I was involved in an “Executive Education” program, designed for middle-level managers; a typical class had 50-60 participants.  One module was a learning lab on system dynamics; we did the top-middle-bottom experiential exercise for these participants.  Several times I have observed and facilitated this exercise, in the “Ex Ed,” graduate level course, and undergraduate course.   Inevitably, the participants in the “top” group, people who were mid-level managers in their day jobs, found that some aspects of group dynamics were beyond their control, however intelligent the participants all were.  One time, the players belonging to the “top” group, in the “Ex Ed” program, decided to offer their shoes — some very nicely made with Italian leather — to the lower groups.  Granted that this was in a learning environment, but the point is the same:  The top level offers symbolic item that means little to everyone else.  At another learning exercise, a bottle of wine and a corkscrew were involved; the struggles between the groups were just as fierce…with the top offering meaningless concession.

In the post-exercise debriefing, the instructors always emphasize that the top group needs to listen to what the lower level of workers have to say.  After all, the lower rank of employees has much more direct experience than the top about the environment in which they work.  But listening requires a healthy dose of humility.

How do we teach humility, especially to adults?  Why has this been difficult for business schools curricula?  Personally, I have been wrestling with this question for some time, without clear ideas.  Would you please share with me and the readers how to achieve that goal?  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:

Can Creative People Implement/Execute Ideas?

Of course they can, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the creative project.  But I think there are profound differences between executing a creative idea for oneself, as a typical artist would do, and doing so for an organization.

Certain words just do not naturally go with “organizations”:   “sensible,” “creative,” “playful,” “awesome…,” etc.  As I mentioned in the last post, organizations, by definition, are about orderly matters, with routines, procedures, or control attached to status.  But most organizations still need occasional creative and innovative breakthroughs to grow.  And a step-change breakthrough starts with a creative or innovative idea.  But accomplishing implementation requires very different kinds of skills than the skills needed for generating creative ideas.  A research study suggested a pathway (mentioned in the previous post):  Idea-bearers need both motivation and networking skills to push through successful implementation of a creative idea.

Networking for a purpose needs intentional focus on the quality and the content of the network.  I propose using the “Team Dimensions Profile”  framework to examine the network composition.  (I am providing one link here, but please Google the term for more elaborate reviews.)  All diagrams below are taken from the “research report,” provided by Center for Internal Change, whose web link I provide above.  The pictures are fairly self-explanatory.

Basic Concepts

Basic Concepts


Whenever I use a framework that puts people in categories, I get a bit nervous. Categories are helpful in giving us anchors and information, but they can too easily be used to box people into overly-narrow portrayals, it being our human nature to latch onto labels that are tangible, convenient, or seemingly sensible, such as “introvert” and “extrovert,” or “executor” and “creator.” Yet categories are handy for analytical purposes.  So, for now, I will suspend my disquiet in order to make some points.

The four categories addressed in Team Dimensions, Creator, Advancer, Refiner, and Executor, are not mutually exclusive; I suspect all of us occupy at least two roles simultaneously, if not more.  However, most of us are naturally inclined to assume one role over the others.  Equally interesting is the comparison – and the inevitable discrepancy – between how we see ourselves and how others see us.

When working in a team, we should be allowed to tap into our best skill set, rather than employing our weak points.  Common sense?  But look around in your organization and see how seldom we achieve such fidelity.  Without intending to offend anyone, let me frame it in this way:  Why would we expect a dog to catch a mouse and a cat to meow an alarm at an intruder into the house?  Yes, odd things happen once in a long while, but I am talking about general probability.  Similarly, for example, why would we task an introverted “creator-refiner” to carry out “advancer-executor” work needing an extrovert’s networking capability?

I do not want to discourage people from learning and acquiring skills outside of their natural talents; however, that should take place when we are at leisure.  Most people face deadlines and pressures at work, and often in such environment, we work best when we are allowed to “swim with the current,” instead of against it.  The same point said differently:  Anyone can create and anyone can execute, but it’s a “creator” who will create even when s/he is working 60-hour weeks with no apparent bandwidth to accomplish anything extra, and it’s an “executor” who will multitask project execution while exercising over the lunch break.

Another example:  I have an artist friend who is extraordinary in creating, with words and with fabrics.  She is also a natural social scientist, methodical and organized in her own environment.  Recently, she was invited to join other artists for an intriguing educational program with local schools.  The program’s goal is to provide alternative and creative learning methods.  In this venue, not only did she have to collaborate with others, she also had to deal with aspects of administrative functions of large organizations.  It frustrated her no end!  It is reasonable and expected that even artists – usually individualistic in their expressions – need to work within perimeters of a program, but, shouldn’t they be allowed to employ their strengths within such boundary?  My friend was tasked to do something with words, but not in the format of poems that is the heart and soul to her.  Furthermore, the organizers’ design for the artists’ schedule resulted in a totally fragmented calendar, as if the artists don’t need time to work on their own projects during the semester.  Maybe some of these organizers are not really good at “execution of realities?”  Or, more likely, the organizers neglected to take into account the artists’ realities.

My point in describing this example is this:  If we invest time upfront in understanding people’s natural talents and ensuring a fit between their skills and the tasks, we will create a team much more likely to produce even under the stressful circumstances that are the new normal for our workplaces.  And when operations are smoother, we are less likely to waste time correcting mistakes and solving peripheral problems.

Applying the framework to the population

Applying the framework to the population

Categorizing people can be liberating when there is a great fit between people’s strengths and certain aspects of a task, but limiting when applied wrongly.  In the “team dimensions” framework, there is another insidious consequence of categorization:  We attach certain social values to each of the roles.  For example, in some organizations, we tend to value “creator” over “executor,” or “analytical skills” over “advancing skills.”  And in other organizations, the “sales/execution” gets the recognition over the “creative research.”  These are artificial values; they are socially constructed.  However, these biases impact how people push in certain directions, and how people win career advancement or financial rewards, regardless of where their true talents lie.

Finally, if a team ends up with more than half of its members loaded onto the execution side, this team may not grow quickly in generating new ventures.  Or, a team with a majority in the “creator” role will not advance easily to getting ideas off the ground.  I think the major challenges in forming a team using this “Team Dimension Profile” are:  Who’s going to decide the team’s composition?  What is to be done with the “excess” members of certain role(s)?  Do you have any suggestions?

Till next time,

 Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:

Feeling Threatened By Creative Ideas?

Whenever I propose that people, of all ranks, take some time to reflect, to chill, to converse with children, to play, or for heaven’s sake, to eat a lunch without reading  memos or emails, I know how difficult it is to actually do any of these activities.  The people at the lower rank can’t do so comfortably without the ‘permission’ of management or the safety-in-numbers provided by colleagues.  If the proposal comes from the people in the positions of authority, some of these managers may feel as if they are imposing yet another “activity” (even if it’s just for fun and relaxation) onto their direct reports who have already exhausted their discretionary time.  Such is organizational life these days.  But the paradox of life is that the more you think you can’t do something outside of the regular domain, that’s precisely when you really need to engage in something not directly or wholly related to work.

Aberration, playfulness, or exploration into the unexpected terrain…these are the bedrocks for creativity and innovation.  But…

The success/failure of creative and innovative measures in organizations are all related to implementation, or the lack of it.  It’s a form of the Knowing-Doing Gap to which I referred in my earlier post.  To begin with, creative and innovative ideas signal potential changes which are generally viewed with skepticism at best and downright hostility at worst.  However, those who are directly responsible for generating the new ideas and/or pushing for the implementation do not themselves experience skepticism or hostility (toward the validity of such an idea).  This provides one glaring clue:  Involve as many people in the changing process as early as possible.

Ideas machine

Ideas machine (Photo credit: yesyesnono)

Second, creative and innovative ideas are anathema to organizations which are, at their core, about orders, procedures, rules, predictability, etc.  Just putting the words “creativity/innovation” in the organization’s mission statement means zilch; it’s just paying lip services.

But more importantly, we need to ask some basic questions:  Do we really know how to recognize a creative/innovative idea when someone presents it to us?  Is there a framework to assess such potential idea(s)?  If it’s in the scientific or technical arena, there may be more guidelines and signposts by which to judge the idea and the consequences of its implementation.  But if it’s in the managerial domain of personnel, relationships, emotional assessments, etc., that is much harder to assess.

Markus Baer in a recently published study, “Putting Creativity to Work:  The Implementation of creative ideas in organizations” (Academy of Management Journal, 2012, vol. 55, No.5, 1102-1119) provides some insightful analysis of why creative ideas are rarely implemented and suggests some pathways to achieve more frequent implementation.

Putting Baer’s points plainly, managers are generally reluctant to implement potentially creative ideas because that would upset the routines of production.   And managers are responsible for production output, or so we believe.  What’s more, if the idea-bearers themselves do not push the ideas further for implementation, their ideas will remain just intriguing thoughts on paper.

Therefore, for creative and innovative ideas to blossom into fruition, the idea-bearer needs to be motivated and to mobilize her/his social network toward implementation.  Further, the idea-bearer needs to especially cultivate network ties who not only will buy in the value of the idea but have the authority and power to advance such an idea for implementation.  Once an innovative/a creative idea is conceived –by no means a small matter – the pathway to implementation is fraught with typical political maneuvering.  Those who are good at creating ideas are not necessarily equipped with political acumen or social skills for such maneuvering.  However, a highly motivated individual with an innovative idea still can find a champion or two to push for implementation.  Of course, even finding a champion requires powerful convincing and persuasion, not a small task either.

A social network diagram

A social network diagram (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In scientific organizations, many idea-bearers are introverts, who while motivated may not be comfortable with networking.  This does not mean it’s hopeless for them; they can rely on writing as a persuasive tool and focus on only a handful of people who are in positions of power to help implement their ideas.

In other words, implementation process is boring and messy and yet terribly and utterly necessary and essential to realize a creative idea.

And all this doesn’t address the forces that oppose potentially creative and innovative ideas.   What would some people of authority and power do when faced  with “perceived threats” posed by innovation/creativity.  After all, to some, changes mean upsetting the status (quo).

In sum, when a creative/innovative idea occurs, it cannot be just about the idea-bearer’s motivation and networking ability in implementing the idea.  For every action, there is a reaction, or counter-action.  The idea-bearer and her network ties have to be keenly aware of not just the usual obstacles but also the opposition of “no.”

But finally, I still go back to those basic questions:  Do we know how to recognize a creative/an innovative idea? Enough to make sustained pushes?  Do you know how?  Please share.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct contact:

New Year Reflections

Happy New Year!  2013 will be awesome…because I intend to make it so, for myself; besides, is there any other way?!

A few years ago, I encountered a young and energetic woman in a “Photoshop” workshop who said, “Every year I take on a new hobby or activity.  So this year I decided to learn how to shoot [with camera] and make great pictures.”  It resonated with me.  It doesn’t have to be a grandiose undertaking, just something that isn’t in one’s usual repertoire.  Through a fabulous new friendship made early last year, I have begun to read a few poems.  While it is still an alien genre to me, I have enough in me to grasp some of the images and insightful passages.  It’s a great exploration for both right brain and left brain.  I don’t consciously plan my “new” activity, but I am always looking for something new to undertake.  One year, I learned to write with my left hand (it was a good employment while listening to NPR), and I can now produce a short note without betraying the slow motion.  Maybe this year it’s going to be a new language.

A bird's view for the New Year!

A bird’s eye view for the New Year!

Dicovering Popova’s site was in the spirit of trying on something new.  She was featured in New York Times’ “Style” section which, coincidentally, I generally eschew as its content annoys me more often than informs me.  After initially bypassing the story on Popova, I later “forced” myself to satisfy my curiosity, tickled by the title “She’s Got Some Big Ideas,” accompanied by a young bright smiling face.  My intuition served me well once again.

I don’t consider myself a terribly creative person; perhaps that’s why I am always fascinated by studies of creativity and creative people.  Toward the end of last year, I discovered a treasure trove in www.brainpickings.orgMaria Popova, the young author of the domain, writes about arts, sciences, creativity, culture, and a slew of other topics based on her readings of a very wide range of old and new books.  Yes, she reads old-fashioned books!  Every time I visit her site, I can lose myself for a good hour or so and have to tear myself away.  There are endless links, and links within links, for one to wander amidst, such as John Cleese on creativity, or Richard Feymann on flowers, curiosity, music…and of course, physics, or Ptolemy and maps, and on and on.  Such talent in someone so young gives me hope for the next generation.

Are any of these points related to “work and organizations?”  I find “work-life balance” a concept based on deficit thinking; it implies that it’s a zero-sum between the two.  We have work life, family life, social life, or even play life, and they are intertwined; they inform each other; they are about us; when engaged in any one aspect, we devote all of ourselves.  Once upon a time, bosses at work could be intrusive in one’s private life, but I think we’ve gone to the other extreme, fooling ourselves into thinking that we can keep rigid boundary around work and not-work domains.  So, go visit “brainpickings” for some enlightenment.  It may not offer immediate insights for work, but it certainly can offer something for you.

Try something new.  If you don’t like it, leave it, but try.

A view from worm's eyes!

A view from worm’s eyes!

“Some wardens looking for a low-cost, low-risk way for inmates to reflect on their crimes, improve fitness and cope with the stress of prison life are turning to yoga,” New York Times reports.  After you are done chuckling, ask yourself, why was it funny? What would be the downside?

If you are in a position of some authority within your organization, why not experiment with one or two different ways of operation, or, propose a few small things for your people to do, just for fun.  Try it.  What would these activities be?  Share with us; it’d be awesome!

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: